Theological method is how a person approaches the interpretation of the Bible and how they arrive at the doctrinal implications of that interpretation.
Theological method is how a person approaches exegesis and theology. There are five interrelated theological disciplines: exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology.
There Are Five Theological Disciplines
The five main theological disciplines are exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and practical theology.
Exegesis interprets a text by analyzing what the author intended to communicate. It draws the meaning out of a text. Exegesis is simply careful reading. For example, when a young lady who is deeply in love with her fiancé receives a letter from him, she reads it carefully. She wants to understand what her fiancé meant. The text means what the text’s author meant. Exegesis seeks to interpret a text by discovering what its author meant. (See the article “Interpreting Scripture: A General Introduction.”)
2. Biblical Theology
Biblical theology studies how the whole Bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ. It is a way of analyzing and synthesizing the Bible that makes organic, salvation-historical connections with the whole canon on its own terms, especially regarding how the Old and New Testaments integrate and climax in Christ.
Many themes in the Bible are organic—they harmoniously grow together as part of a whole. They are like an apple tree: a theme may start out as a seed that sprouts and slowly grows into a mature tree that bears apples. The tree has several parts: roots, trunk, branches, leaves, apples. And it’s all one tree. Biblical theology studies and synthesizes that growth.
Salvation history refers to the Bible’s redemptive storyline, which moves from creation to the fall to redemption and consummation. Biblical theology connects key events within that story. There are several overlapping ways to do that: (1) Trace a theme’s salvation-historical progression (e.g., the temple theme). (2) Consider continuity and discontinuity between the covenants (e.g., how Christians relate to the Mosaic law). (3) Track promise and fulfillment (e.g., studying fulfillment language in Matthew). (4) Trace type and antitype (e.g., Adam and Christ). (5) Analyze how the New Testament uses the Old. Why do New Testament authors quote or allude to specific Old Testament passages in the way they do?
Biblical theology provides a helpful framework for reading any part of the Bible in light of the whole. Christians at this stage in the history of salvation must read any part of the Bible—including the Old Testament—with Christian eyes. The Bible is one big story that’s all about Jesus. Here is one way to state the theological message of the Bible in one sentence: God reigns, saves, and satisfies through covenant for his glory in Christ. (See the article “Biblical Theology.”)
3. Historical Theology
Historical theology surveys and evaluates how significant exegetes and theologians have understood the Bible and theology. How has Christian doctrine developed? In particular, how has it responded to false teaching? This focuses on periods of time earlier than our own. It could be arrogant and lazy for a person to present their own views without engaging historical theology at all. (See the articles “Historical Theology,” “Patristic Theology,” “Medieval Theology,” “Reformed Theology,” and “Scholastic Theology.”)
4. Systematic Theology
Systematic theology discerns how a passage theologically coheres with the whole Bible. It answers the question “What does the whole Bible say about _______?” It presupposes that the whole Bible is coherent, that it doesn’t contradict itself.
Systematic theology correlates what the whole Bible teaches and organizes it by topics or themes. Traditionally, systematic theology divides into about ten categories. These are doctrines that both Scripture and historical theology emphasize.
- Theology proper (the doctrine of God)
- Bibliology (the doctrine of the Bible)
- Angelology (the doctrine of angels and demons)
- Anthropology (the doctrine of humans)
- Hamartiology (the doctrine of sin)
- Christology (the doctrine of Christ)
- Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation)
- Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit)
- Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church)
- Eschatology (the doctrine of the end times)
Systematic theology also incorporates other fields that focus on apologetics and philosophy. It employs the tools of logic, history, and experience to interpret and coherently organize what Scripture says about these topics. But Bible doctrine is the bread and butter of systematic theology. Those ten categories are the big headings under which most systematic theology fits. Theological systems involve one or more of these headings. For example, Calvinism and Arminianism involve primarily theology proper, anthropology, hamartiology, and soteriology; covenant theology and dispensationalism involve primarily ecclesiology and eschatology; Baptist and Presbyterian and Anglican polities involve ecclesiology. Systematic theology can enrich how you exegete a particular text, but if your systematic theological framework is not correct, then that can also distort how you exegete a particular text. (See the article “Systematic Theology.”)
5. Practical Theology
Practical theology applies the text to yourself, the church, and the world. It answers the question, “How should we then live?”
There’s a big difference between asking “What does John 3:16 mean?” and “What does John 3:16 mean for me or for the church or for the world today?” The first question requires exegesis. The second requires application.
Practical theology should naturally flow out of the other theological disciplines: exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology. Practical theology applies those disciplines to help people glorify God by living wisely with a biblical worldview.
We Can Break Down the Five Theological Disciplines into Twelve Components
The first eight components are aspects of exegesis:
- Genre. Establish guidelines for interpreting a passage’s style of literature.
- Textual Criticism. Establish the original wording.
- Translation. Compare translations.
- Grammar. Understand how sentences communicate by words, phrases, and clauses (especially in the Bible’s original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek).
- Argument Diagram. Trace the logical argument by arcing, bracketing, or phrasing.
- Historical-Cultural Context. Understand the situation in which the author composed the literature and any historical-cultural details that the author mentions or probably assumes.
- Literary Context. Understand the role that a passage plays in its whole book.
- Word Studies. Unpack key words, phrases, and concepts.
- Biblical Theology. Study how the whole Bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ.
- Historical Theology. Survey and evaluate how significant exegetes and theologians have understood the Bible and theology.
- Systematic Theology. Discern how a passage theologically coheres with the whole Bible.
- Practical Theology. Apply the text to yourself, the church, and the world.
Those twelve components are not exactly steps in the sense that you must proceed precisely from steps one through twelve every time you interpret a Bible passage. It’s more helpful to think of those twelve components as aspects of the overall process of exegesis and theology. You can focus on any one of the twelve components in order to increase your overall proficiency. In a similar way, a soccer player may practice by focusing on individual aspects of the game—dribbling, passing, shooting, etc. But all of the components interrelate.
The Theological Disciplines Interrelate
How do the five theological disciplines relate to each other? Some might propose that we simply proceed in a straight line from exegesis to biblical theology to historical theology to systematic theology to practical theology. But that does not work. You cannot do any one of the five theological disciplines without the other four influencing you to some degree—whether consciously or not. For example, you might think that you can exegete the Bible neutrally and objectively and that you then build your systematic theology on such discoveries. But the systematic-theological framework you already have profoundly influences your exegesis. As we mature in any one of the five theological disciplines, that should help us become more proficient in the others.
The only sentence that many people know from John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad is a great one: “Missions exists because worship doesn’t.” That’s true for the five theological disciplines, too. Exegesis and theology exist because worship doesn’t.
The whole point of exegesis and theology is to know and worship God. It’s not to master God’s word but for God’s word to master us. When you understand exegesis and theology better, the praise gets richer.
On theological method:
- D. A. Carson, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But ….”
- David K. Clark, To Know and Love God: Method for Theology.
- Brian C. Collins, Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Theology: Evaluating Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
- Jason S. DeRouchie, How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology.
- Gary T. Meadors, ed., Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology.
- Andrew David Naselli, “ A. Carson’s Theological Method.”
- Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology. (This article condenses that book.)
- Craig L. Blomberg, with Jennifer Foutz Markley, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
- Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning, eds., Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis.
- D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies.
- Jason S. DeRouchie, ed., What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible.
- J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible.
- Gordon D. Fee and Mark L. Strauss, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions.
- John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture.
- Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible.
On biblical theology:
- T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
- G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation.
- G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
- G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Benjamin L. Gladd, and Andrew David Naselli, eds., Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, ~2022).
- D. A. Carson, ed., New Studies in Biblical Theology series.
- D. A. Carson, ed., NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.
- Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli, 40 Questions on Biblical Theology (Kregel, 2020).
- Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants.
- Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name.
- Dane Ortlund and Miles V. Van Pelt, eds., Short Studies in Biblical Theology series.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments.
- Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, eds., Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies.
On historical theology:
- Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine; A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
- Gerald Bray, God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology.
- John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine.
- Donald K. McKim, ed., Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters.
- Stephen J. Nichols and Justin Taylor, eds., Theologians on the Christian Life series.
- John Piper, 21 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful.
On systematic theology:
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion.
- John S. Feinberg, ed., Foundations of Evangelical Theology series.
- John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.
On practical theology:
- Daniel M. Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: The Theory and Practice of Biblical Application.
- Timothy Keller’s books.
- John Piper’s writings, sermons, and podcasts.